Gar­den­ers of the for­est

We should thank ele­phants for prop­a­gat­ing wild durian and cempedak trees.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By AHIMSA CAM­POS- Ar­CEIZ star2­green@ thes­tar. com. my

IT is fair to say that ele­phants are the gar­den­ers of Malaysian forests. They spend most of their time eat­ing, mov­ing some­where else ( to eat some more), and defe­cat­ing. When ele­phants eat, they prune the veg­e­ta­tion, in­creas­ing eco­log­i­cal com­plex­ity and fa­cil­i­tat­ing the ex­is­tence of other species. For ex­am­ple, when ele­phants eat, they cre­ate lit­tle gaps for new plants to grow, leave be­hind a mess of bro­ken branches and leaves on which smaller an­i­mals feed, and cre­ate crevices used by small an­i­mals to live.

Ele­phants also weed the for­est, act­ing as eco­log­i­cal fil­ters; they make cer­tain plants scarce by se­lec­tively feed­ing on them, and others abun­dant just by not eat­ing them.

Ele­phants pro­vide im­por­tant for­est fer­tilis­ers – ev­ery­day each ele­phant defe­cates more than 100kg of dung, very rich in nu­tri­ents. Be­cause ele­phants defe­cate kilo­me­tres away from where they ate, they act as nu­tri­ent pumps, dis­tribut­ing scarce nu­tri­ents such as phos­pho­rus and sil­ica through­out the ecosys­tem.

Fi­nally, ele­phants are im­por­tant tree planters. They love to eat wild fruits, es­pe­cially large fleshy fruits such duri­ans and man­goes ( so com­mon in Malaysian forests). Ele­phants are one of the few, of­ten the only, an­i­mal that can swal­low these large seeds and defe­cate them in suitable con­di­tions to ger­mi­nate and grow into new trees. If you like to eat durian, mango, or cempedak, you should be grate­ful to ele­phants for main­tain­ing the wild pop­u­la­tions of these trees! Just a cou­ple of weeks ago, a group of more than 40 sci­en­tists from all over the world – in­clud­ing my­self – pub­lished a pa­per en­ti­tled Sav­ing The World’s Ter­res­trial Me­gafauna.

This is not a reg­u­lar sci­en­tific pa­per but a pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion of our con­cern that busi­ness as usual will re­sult in the dis­ap­pear­ance of ele­phants in the 21st cen­tury. This is par­tic­u­larly true in South- East Asia. Ele­phants are cru­cial for ecosys­tems and Malaysia is one of the most im­por­tant coun­tries for the con­ser­va­tion of wild ele­phants.

Key­stone species

Ele­phants are what ecol­o­gists call a “key­stone species”, which means species with im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal roles in the ecosys­tems they in­habit.

The loss of ele­phants from forests re­sults in what we call “trophic cas­cades”, dra­matic eco­log­i­cal changes with long- term neg­a­tive ef­fects on many plant and an­i­mal species. Con­serv­ing ele­phants is there­fore im­por­tant, and not only for ele­phants them­selves but for the ecosys­tems they in­habit.

Wild ele­phants oc­cur now in very frag­mented pop­u­la­tions of 13 Asian coun­tries. Un­for­tu­nately, the species is en­dan­gered and most of these small pop­u­la­tions – es­pe­cially in South- east Asia – won’t sur­vive be­yond the 21st cen­tury. The main threats for Asian ele­phants are the loss of nat­u­ral habi­tats and hu­man- ele­phant con­flict that oc­curs when ele­phants raid peo­ple’s crops. Poach­ing for ivory and de­mo­graphic prob­lems in very small pop­u­la­tions are also threats to some ele­phant pop­u­la­tions.

Malaysia is now home to about one- third of the wild ele­phants in South- east Asia. In the near fu­ture, I ex­pect Malaysia to be­come even more im­por­tant for ele­phant con­ser­va­tion in the re­gion. This is be­cause Malaysia dif­fers from neigh­bour­ing ele­phant coun­tries in a num­ber of ways.

For ex­am­ple, Malaysia is richer, with higher GDP per capita than Thai­land, In­done­sia or Myan­mar. Malaysia also has strong and ro­bust gov­er­nance sys­tems, with rel­a­tively good laws and poli­cies ( even if of­ten they are not im­ple­mented ef­fec­tively). Malaysia also has a low hu­man den­sity and a pre­dom­i­nantly ur­ban pop­u­la­tion. Al­to­gether this means that: > Malaysia can al­lo­cate eco­nomic resources for con­ser­va­tion.

> If there is enough po­lit­i­cal will, good laws and poli­cies can be im­ple­mented.

> There is a rel­a­tively low need to fur­ther con­vert the re­main­ing nat­u­ral habi­tats into hu­man set­tle­ments and crops. Malaysia can af­ford to con­serve wild ele­phants and it ac­tu­ally of­fers the best hope for the species in the re­gion.

What to do

Com­pla­cency and a busi­ness as usual at­ti­tude will lead to the col­lapse of ele­phant pop­u­la­tions in Malaysia.

Be­low are some key is­sues that would help con­serve Malaysian ele­phants in the long run:

1. Ele­phants need large ar­eas of con­nected habi­tat. The ex­ist­ing net­work of pro­tected for­est ar­eas is not enough for the longterm con­ser­va­tion of ele­phants. Ini­tia­tives such as the Cen­tral For­est Spine ( in West Malaysia) need to be ad­e­quately im­ple­mented.

2. We need to tol­er­ate some amount of hu­man- ele­phant con­flict. As long as ele­phants and peo­ple share a land­scape, there will be con­flict. Since there are not enough places where ele­phants can sur­vive away from peo­ple, ele­phant con­ser­va­tion in the 21st cen­tury needs to fo­cus on cre­at­ing

— pho­tos: mEmE

3 malaysia is now home to about one- third of the wild ele­phants in south- East Asia.

1 Ahimsa Cam­pos- Ar­ceiz track­ing ele­phants in the for­est with a VHF an­tenna.

2 Ele­phants help spread seeds and fer­tilis­ers in the for­est.

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